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PJ Washington becoming the star Kentucky needs

PJ Washington looked like a whole new man during the Bahamas trip, and after a sluggish start, he’s on his way back to being that big-time player for Kentucky again.

Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

In the first two games of the season, Kentucky forward PJ Washington scored just 11 points on nine total shot attempts from the floor with eight rebounds, five turnovers (all in the Southern Illinois win) and no steals or blocks.

In the following four games after the 1-1 start, Washington has been en fuego for the ‘Cats, averaging 17.3 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game in the four-game span.

(And because you totally care about his free-throw percentage after what happened in March against Kansas State, in the six games so far this season, Washington has made 21-of-33 freebies, which is good enough for 63.6 percent. That’s not bad for the big fella coming off the finger issues late last season.)

What’s made the difference for Washington since the early couple games?

Well, other than his confidence and swagger being back like it was during the Bahamas trip, he’s showing the full arsenal of his game.

Showin’ some range

The North Dakota game may have been an outlier for Washington when he hit four of his five 3-point attempts back on Nov. 14, but Washington has made five of his nine total attempts from long range so far this season.

(Note: Washington made that many triples (5) all last season in 21 total attempts from 3.)

Obviously, bigs aren’t really allowed to shoot from deep in John Calipari’s system. There’s exceptions like Wenyen Gabriel, but Calipari will usually expect Washington’s production to come inside the painted area.

Still, it’s good for Kentucky if the big fella can show some form and range like this.

Washington trails the play and then steps into an above-the-break 3, which he makes.

And, like this one out of a broken HORNS set.

The ‘Cats go to a HORNS look with Washington and he pops out of the set from a Quade Green drive to can a right corner 3.

Giving that PJ-like effort down low

Washington’s always been a strong dude and with his summer workouts, he’s much lighter and quicker on his feet this season.

I loved this play from that same North Dakota performance that displayed all of that with an and-one off a Washington miss. Washington not only goes to the post-up, but he faces up, moves quick and gets into the lane, plus he follows up an ugly miss with an offensive rebound (his only one of the game) and a bucket.

(Note: 14 of Washington’s 51 total rebounds this season have come on the offensive end.)

Washington doesn’t score off the post-up, but that extra effort off the miss makes all the difference.

You hear it a lot of Kentucky’s offense in the Calipari era and you’ve seen it at times, but the best offense for the ‘Cats is a missed shot. Why? Because they’re that much more athletic, bigger and stronger than most teams on their schedule, especially in the early portion of the season before the big non-conference games and the SEC slate.

This play from Washington in the VMI win sums that up quite well.

Johnson miss. Montgomery misses. Washington doesn’t.

Keldon Johnson made a good effort to get in the lane and get off a layup attempt at the rim. EJ Montgomery did well to rebound Johnson’s miss, but it was Washington’s efforts that made this possession memorable.

He not only gathers Montgomery’s miss (one of his seven offensive rebounds in the game), but shows enough patience in tight headquarters to slam one home for the bucket. Small team that could really shoot or not, plays like this are what Kentucky needs from their emotional leader.

Kentucky has plenty of talent to win, but they need Washington

“If he chooses to come out and play with that kind of intensity, he’s a difference-maker,” Calipari said after the North Dakota win, via Jon Hale of the Louisville Courier Journal. “He’s a separator. But the other guy is standing straight up and down, balls going between your legs, can’t get a rebound, fumbling the ball, that guy ain’t a separator.”

Kentucky has plenty of issues right now through six games, many of which stem from the defensive end in terms of effort and staying in front of guys.

Sure, they’re 5-1, but the expectations from the Big Blue Nation don’t involve losing by 34 points on a neutral floor to one of their rival blue bloods and giving up 19 3-pointers to a military institute.

Calipari is right. For Kentucky to become the team many expected them to be off the impressive performances in the Bahamas and that starts with PJ Washington.

Reid Travis is the leader-by-example for the ‘Cats, but the emotional leader of this team is Washington. When he’s engaged, mean muggin’ anyone in his path, the ‘Cats are a different (and dangerous) team.

“I hate it when someone says, ‘Well, more motor, he needs more motor,’” Calipari said in that same presser.

“That’s basically saying you’re not playing hard enough. I don’t want to hear that about any of my players. When he competes and goes after it, he’s physically tough, he’s mentally tough, he’s skilled. He’s just got to do it. That’s who he’s got to be every moment he’s on the court.”

That last sentence is important because Calipari realizes how important Washington is to this bunch with his performance. If he’s good, this team is really good. When he struggles, this team struggles mightily.